Court Rules Against Ranch for Kids

By Beacon Staff

LIBBY – A district court judge ruled Tuesday that a ranch for troubled foreign adoptees in Eureka is not an adjunct ministry and therefore is not exempt from state licensing requirements.

Lincoln County Judge James Wheelis approved the state’s motion for summary judgment while denying a motion from the Ranch for Kids Project. The ruling was a major legal setback for the ranch, which has been engaged in a long-running dispute with the state Department of Labor and Industry.

Located near Eureka, Ranch for Kids bills itself as a respite care home that takes in adopted children from around the world – especially Russia – who are experiencing problems at home, often due to fetal alcohol-related issues.

Joyce Sterkel, the ranch’s founder, had argued that her organization’s affiliation with a ministry called Epicenter International Missions Ministry exempted it from state oversight. But the Department of Labor and Industry countered that the facility only became affiliated with the church to escape licensing regulations and fees.

Since 2010, the ranch has been operating without a license from the labor department’s Private Alternative Adolescent Residential or Outdoor Programs (PAARP) board.

The state also argued that the affiliation doesn’t qualify for an exemption because the ministry is not a real church. Jeremy Evjene, a ranch employee, formed the Epicenter International Missions Ministry in 2004, but state officials say it has no building, congregation or ordained clergy.

Mary Tapper, an attorney for PAARP, argued on the state’s behalf at the Feb. 5 hearing via video-teleconference. She said ranch officials, already mired in litigation with her department, presented in October 2011 “a piece of paper entitled memorandum of understanding” as evidence of its affiliation with the ministry.

“Just because that piece of paper says Ranch for Kids is an adjunct ministry does not make it one,” she said.

Tapper added that Evjene, the ministry’s founder, “admits that he has no degree, no theological, medical, psychiatric or psychological training.”

“And yet he calls himself out as a pastor and therapist to deeply disturbed adolescents who have been diagnosed with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and other psychological and behavioral problems,” she said.

Wheelis agreed that the ranch doesn’t fit the definition of an adjunct ministry. He also said the state has a right “to take steps to protect children regardless of where they’re situated – a school, family,” or other places.

The decision means the ranch must now fulfill its obligations to the state to avoid being shut down, though a second pending lawsuit between the facility and the labor department will have an impact on the final outcome.

That multi-year case alleges that the Ranch for Kids violated building and electrical codes while refusing mandatory state property inspections. Ranch manager William Sutley, Sterkel’s son, has previously argued that the ranch is not subject to public or commercial building inspections because it is a private, residential facility.

Last July, Wheelis ordered the ranch to comply with building and electrical code requirements or risk having its power shut down. In the months since that court order, Colleen White, a state attorney, said ranch officials have been making efforts to comply with state requirements.

White said Tuesday that Wheelis is expected to hold a March 4 hearing on the progress of the ranch’s compliance. Tapper said the outcome of that case and an on-site inspection will decide “how quickly Ranch for Kids can get licensed.”

J. Tiffin Hall, the attorney for Ranch for Kids, declined to comment after the hearing, saying he needed more time to consult with his clients. Hall was accompanied at the Lincoln County Courthouse by Sutley. Sterkel did not attend the hearing.

As evidence of the importance of keeping the ranch open, Hall pointed to 13 affidavits filed in support of the ranch by families who have used its services. He repeated throughout the hearing that there have been no allegations that the “Ranch for Kids operation is unsafe for children.”

Tapper responded that the state has no way of knowing if there are safety concerns because the ranch hasn’t been compliant.

“We are not aware of anything because the state has not done any inspections for two years … 2 1/2 years on the property,” she said, “so there is no way for the state to even know what is happening there.”

Ranch for Kids made national headlines last June after Russian government officials showed up with a camera crew at the facility demanding to see the kids inside. They were not let past the front gate and Sterkel later dismissed their arrival as a publicity stunt. Upon returning home, Russia’s children’s rights commissioner called for the ranch to be shut down, alleging mistreatment of the kids.

RELATED: Russian Government Faces off with Eureka Adoption Ranch

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